Ask the pilot

Size isn't everything: Boeing's Dreamliner won't take off for three years and is already outselling the Airbus superjumbo.


Patrick Smith
May 13, 2005 11:30PM (UTC)

Boeing and Airbus continue trading swipes over whether the latter's outsize double-decker, the A380, is destined for boon or bust. For now, Boeing is able to chortle quietly, as orders for the ungainly Airbus have stalled at about 160 copies. According to some estimates, that's barely a third of what's needed for the Europeans to recoup a $13 billion investment. Of course, with the prototype barely out of the nest and scheduled service still a year away, it's much too early to reserve that parking spot alongside Concorde and the Spruce Goose. And Boeing would be wise to recall the miserable start of its own superjumbo project. The 747 program was so beset by technical problems and performance shortfalls that it brought the company to the brink of total ruin. Thirty-five years later, more 747s have been built than any other widebody in history.

Check back in a couple of years for a more accurate prognosis.

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Behind all the sparring over size, meanwhile, is a more compelling story: the gathering storm that will pit Boeing's ultra-high-tech 787 -- the so-called Dreamliner -- against the Airbus A350, a derivative of the A330 and currently under development. These will be midsize machines without the A380's record-breaking girth and stage presence, but the competitive tug-of-war will be fierce. (It already is, with a bitter U.S.-Europe trade dispute brewing over EU subsidies to the A350 project.)

So far, in what some observers are calling the most successful prelaunch in commercial airliner history, Boeing and its 787 have the edge. Three years before scheduled delivery of the first aircraft, the total number of 787 commitments and options stands at more than 240. That should enable Boeing to regain position as the world's No. 1 commercial planemaker. Once again the European and Asian carriers are the ones driving sales, though Northwest and Continental have ordered 28. Rumors say American may join them. Launch customer All Nippon Airways will receive 50; Air-India just signed papers for up to 27.

For the moment, the Airbus A350, slated to enter service in 2010, has been able to recruit only a single customer. Caution again, bearing in mind that Boeing's 767 was the dominant midsize twin for years before the A330 began to clobber it. Boeing is now weighing closure of the 767 production line after a run of more than two decades.

The baseline A350 will be slightly larger than the 787, with room for 245 in a three-class layout. A larger version will seat 285. Airbus estimates that upward of 3,000 aircraft in the 250- to 280-seat range will be retired in the next 20 years and confidently predicts at least a 50 percent share of replacement sales. We could tinker all day with comparative range and capacity variations of the A350 and 787; considering the vastness of the market and the operational flexibility of these aircraft, things could well turn out profitable for both manufacturers, mutually successful in the vein of the 737-vs.-A320 contest.

In the meantime, don't get me started on this naming and numbering business. Once upon a time aircraft designations went in neat sequential order. Why did Airbus have to skip from A340 to A380, then backfill with the A350? Who knows. Hats off to Boeing, at least, for having the good sense to retain its traditional chronology and abandon the proposed "7E7" moniker for what became the 787. To what extent the opinions of this column played into Boeing's decision is unknown, but it's nice to imagine they were listening.

In truth, tradition and sentiment probably weren't as valuable as impressing the Chinese. The naming announcement coincided with an order of 60 aircraft from six Chinese airlines. "Incorporating the 8 at the time of the China order," says Boeing CEO Alan Mulally on the company's Web site, "is also significant because in many Asian cultures the number 8 represents good luck and prosperity." (Astute flyers will recognize that all United Airlines flight numbers to Asia begin with an 8.) Though perhaps more to the point, in both Mandarin and Cantonese the pronunciation of "eight" sounds akin to the word meaning "to make money."

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Another wise choice on Boeing's part was to scrap the 787's original vertical stabilizer and cockpit windscreen designs. Early drafts of the nose and tail assured us that the bulbous A380 wouldn't be garnering all the ugly votes. Aiming for something distinctive and idiosyncratic, engineers came up with a brutally overwrought tail and a set of futuristic-looking flight deck windows. There was something unsettlingly anthropomorphic about the hyperswept goldfish fin, while the nose was a tad too sci-fi for some tastes. Revised to more conventional specs, the jet remains plenty nonconformist with its long, sharply tapered wings. Few will confuse it with the A350, which will be more or less indistinguishable from the A330.

Since we're doing aesthetics, I'll mention that Air Canada has opted for fourteen 787s as part of a fleet-renewal program. Boeing's revamp spares us from a double dose of ugliness: having to see that curvy-wurvy tail done up in Air Canada's tragic new color scheme. There have been some awful new liveries unveiled in the past few years (JAL's "rising splotch" is perhaps the worst), but this one is particularly baffling when you consider just how crisp and handsome the supplanted scheme was. If it ain't broke...

Is there supposed to be something endemically Canadian about the soapy blue fuselage? It does have a certain glacial pallor, but that's not what comes to mind. If it accurately evokes anything, it's the men's room tile at the airport in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

I always thought Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose was the largest plane ever made. How do the A380 and 747 compare?

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Comparing aircraft size is subjective to some degree. Physical dimensions -- wingspan or length -- don't tell the whole story; some planes have a long fuselage but a comparatively short wingspan, and vice versa. To avoid the confusion, maximum certified takeoff weight is probably the most equitable yardstick, accounting for both the mass of the airframe and, more important, its capabilities for lifting flesh, freight, and fuel. Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the international organization that officially recognizes aviation and space records, relies on takeoff weight as the base criterion.

To recap from a week ago, the five largest -- which is to say heaviest -- commercial jetliners are:

1. Airbus A380 (1,235,000 pounds)
2. Boeing 747 series 400ER (910,000 pounds)
3. Airbus A340 series 600 (837,800 pounds)
4. Boeing 777 Series 300ER (775,000 pounds)
5. McDonnell Douglas MD-11 (630,500 pounds)

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The 777-300 (4) has a longer fuselage than a 747 (2). The Airbus A340-600 (3) is longer still -- at 247 feet it's even longer than an A380 (1). But longer doesn't mean bigger. You can play the same game with wingspan: the 767-400, (not on the list) has a wider span than the MD-11 (5), but is considerably lighter and has room for fewer people.

Passenger capacities don't work either, as cabin arrangements vary significantly. As discussed here last time, some carriers are outfitting their A380s with fewer seats than are found on many 747s (add Qatar Airways to that list, by the way, with plans for 460 seats). The first-ever passenger jet, the de Havilland Comet, was roughly the size of a 737, but seldom carried more than a hundred people. It's best to rely on heft.

The Spruce Goose, for those who aren't familiar, was an experimental seaplane -- fashioned primarily of birch, not spruce -- conceived by Howard Hughes and the industrialist Henry Kaiser. (Hughes reportedly despised the nickname Spruce Goose, preferring the craft's official designation of H-4 Hercules.) Piloted by the eccentric billionaire himself, the plane made its maiden voyage at Long Beach, Calif., in 1947. It rose to a height of about 80 feet, continued for approximately one mile, then settled gently back to the water and never flew again. At about 300,000 pounds (a quarter the size of an A380, a third of a 747) it was, at the time, unprecedented in every regard. With a pair of massive wings spanning 320 feet, it was and remains the widest plane of all time.

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Call me crazy, but one way to pretty up the A380's swollen forehead would be to add a set of forward-facing windows to the second deck. With all this talk of installing casinos and duty-free boutiques, why not a cabin lounge with a panoramic view? Would such a modification be technically feasible?

It's a neat idea -- a set of cockpit-style wraparound windows at the front of the upper passenger cabin. It would be technically feasible, sort of, but prohibitively expensive. Windows are integral to a plane's overall structure; you don't just cut a few extra for looks. They need to withstand the forces of pressurization, as well as thermal expansion and contraction of the fuselage, which is why they tend to be rounded and small. Any forward-facing windscreens, like those in the cockpit, also have to be strong enough to resist impact damage from birds, hail, etc. Cockpit panes are serious pieces of equipment, costing tens of thousands of dollars to replace.

Studying the photo, the A380's rooftop slope is actually gentler and more shallow than it first appears, meaning the glass panels would need to be particularly large to afford an attractive view. Note also how the cockpit windows interrupt the smooth curvature of the nose. Adding a second aerodynamic "bump" to the fuselage brings on a whole other set of implications.

A couple of columns ago, in your critique of a Chilean airline, you chronicled your ride aboard "flight H2 021." If you don't mind my asking, what the hell kind of flight number is that?

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Officially, flight numbers are prefixed by an airline's two-character code as assigned by IATA -- the International Air Transport Association. We routinely drop these codes in the United States, but elsewhere they are common. Chile's Sky Airline uses H2.

Sometimes it's intuitive: UA for United Airlines, BA for British Airways. The EI of Aer Lingus is taken from Eire, while EgyptAir's MS comes from Misr, which is what Egyptians call their country. The stranger ones are random, or else employed to avoid redundancies. Emirates is EK because EM belongs to Aero Benin. Aero Benin is EM because AB belongs to Air Berlin. Dig? Since there are only 26 letters and almost a thousand IATA-designated airlines, many codes are alphanumeric. JetBlue, for instance, is stuck with B6 because JB is the property of something called Helijet International.

I have no idea if IATA allows swapping, but frankly I doubt the airlines care that much. Three-letter identifiers also are assigned by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, but for now these are used mainly for air traffic control purposes. A plan is in line to eventually swap all IATA codes to the three-letter ICAO format.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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